Last month, there circulated a viral news story from the Knoxville News Sentinel about a Santa Claus actor who was called to a hospital so he could play Santa for a dying child. The boy died in the Santa’s arms, and the story was just heartbreaking. It was also untrue. The story was told to the paper, which then reached out to the Santa actor, who confirmed the details. Later, however, the finer points of the story could not be verified. The story couldn’t be proven to be true, but it couldn’t be disproven as untrue, either. Since it failed to meet the News Sentinel’s own standards for veracity, it pulled the story and issued an explanation as to what happened.
By then, the whole country had seen the story. How many had seen the follow-up, I don’t know. But the story landed amid a nationwide conversation about the difference between what is “fake news” (demonstrably false content written by those who know it to be false and distribute it anyway, ostensibly to sway public opinion one way or another) and what is merely bad journalism (content that might be written fraudulently and/or insufficiently vetted by editors for its accuracy an integrity, but ultimately published in good faith that the story is legitimate). And like many people, I fell for it. What can I say? It was a sappy story told at the holidays, when I’m most likely to let down my guard. It happens.
It reminded me of the journalism profession’s biggest modern blunder, in which Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won a 1981 Pulitzer for her feature, “Jimmy’s World,” which described Washington, D.C.’s heroin trade, and a fourth-grade boy, Jimmy, who was a third-generation heroin addict. But Cooke’s feature was fabricated, itself the work of somebody whose various personal issues, combined with the stress of her job and an atmosphere of trust combined into an ethical disaster. Cooke returned her Pulitzer and resigned. The “Jimmy’s World” fiasco permanently damaged the collective reputation of journalism itself and, in its way, helped to give rise to the “fake news” contagion we see now.
Both the Santa story and “Jimmy’s World” take advantage of a need to perform, a desire to please, a willingness to trust, and a failure to verify. The problems here are really no different than any other business fraught with ethical peril. But in journalism, when you break the truth, you break your own reason for being. In journalism, the danger isn’t just real. It’s existential. And what’s worse, the damage can be done just as easily by outright fabrication as by merely insufficient editorial oversight. Once the public knows its been had, it tends to stop caring about the reasons how it happened.
We are entering a 2017 with a remarkable year of ethical, governance, regulatory, and compliance failures behind us. The mission of Compliance Week is not just to report on those things, but on the ways in which we might see these problems before they manifest themselves and to manage those risks accordingly. We who write about ethics and doing the right thing understand keenly the need to do so ourselves. And in that, we shall always strive to deliver to you that which is informative, educational, and compelling. But most of all, it must also be honest, fair, and true. That is our pledge to you. In a perfect world, these things would be understood. But the more we all make this vow to each other, the more likely we are to feel that it need not ever be spoken aloud. That is the irony of building ethical trust, but it’s an irony worth living with.